It turns out, according to the Supreme Court, Orange County, that the standards for review of municipal contracts are noticeably less stringent for New York Village Boards than for Town Boards.  Village Boards may approve a contract in principal, allowing the Mayor some room for further negotiation and language changes.  Town Boards must review and approve the actual, final contract; and the Supervisor may not refine or sign any other contract.  That was the Court’s analysis in Guazzoni v. Village of Tuxedo Park, ____ N.Y.S.3d ____, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 28177, 2018 WL 2946114 (Sup. Ct., Orange Co. 6/12/2018).

 

The Trustees of the Village of Tuxedo Park passed a resolution that the Village enter into a consulting agreement with an outside Consultant.  (The Court’s opinion does not disclose the nature of the consulting.)  The Board’s resolution states that the contract was to be “substantially” in the form reviewed by the Trustees, “together with such changes as may be reviewed by counsel and approved by the Mayor” and one of the Trustees.  The Mayor then signed a contract under which the consultant was paid approximately $5,371 per month and an additional sum of $800 per month for costs or reasons not discussed in the opinion.

Plaintiffs were not happy with the contract – again, for unspecified reasons.  They brought an action claiming that the Mayor had not been authorized to enter into the contract as it was finally drafted and signed after review and modification by counsel (presumably the Village Attorney), the Mayor and the single Trustee specified by the Board.

The Court held that a Village Board did not have to approve the final contract.  The Court recognized that statutory restrictions on a municipality’s power to contract serve the purpose of protecting the public from “corrupt or ill-considered actions of municipal officials.”  However, it was sufficient that the Trustees had authorized the Mayor to sign a contract that was substantially like the terms the Trustees had reviewed.

The Court relied on NY Village Law §4-412(1)(a) which defines the general powers of Village Trustees as, broadly speaking, the “management of village property and finances.”  The Village Law does not specify the manner in which village contracts must be made, and there is “no express statutory provision requiring village boards to approve contracts in their entirety before their execution by the mayor.”

In contrast, NY Town Law §64 defines the powers and duties of Town Boards and states that a Town Board “may award contracts” to “be executed by the supervisor in the name of the town after approval by the town board.”  Therefore, says this opinion, a Town Board must approve the exact contract with all details before the Supervisor can sign it – but Village Boards may approve the substance of a deal with a municipal contractor; and the Mayor may sign any contract that does not change the substance approved by the Trustees.

It was not strictly necessary for the Court to construe Town Law §64 to decide the village case before it – although the analysis is certainly interesting.  The lack of any detail of how the final contract negotiated by the Mayor and one of the Trustees differed from the substance approved by the Trustees is also intriguing.  Without that information it is difficult to know why the plaintiffs were concerned enough to bring an action challenging the contract and, more importantly, how this recent case may affect future municipal contracts.

Since the Court ultimately did not dismiss the complaint because the record was insufficient, the case will continue; and there might be further lessons to learn.  The lesson for now is that it is crucial to review the procedure by which contracts are adopted if your client is the municipality or a citizen challenging the municipality’s contracts.

 

For many decades, Long Islanders have been hearing about proposals to span over or under Long Island Sound. The most recent pronouncement for a cross-sound tunnel or bridge came from Governor Cuomo in his 2016 state-of-state address. This was followed by a report released by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) in December 2017 (LI Sound Report) which examined the feasibility and regional benefits of a Long Island Sound crossing. More on this proposal later in this post. But first, a review of prior proposals.

Prior Proposals

According to the 2017 LI Sound Report, the first cross-sound proposal originated in the 1930s. That proposal involved an eighteen-mile bridge going from Orient Point to either Groton, CT or Watch Hill, RI. It faded from consideration upon the death of the senator championing the bridge and the start of World War II.

In the 1950s, another proposal involved two bridges, one from Oyster Bay to Rye/Port Chester and the other from Orient Point to Watch Hill, RI. Governor Harriman put the kibosh on this proposal due to its cost and low traffic predictions. (Clearly, not the most accurate traffic study ever done!)

During the 1960s, several proposals were floated, including one that would have extended the Long Island Expressway 30 miles from Riverhead to Orient Point and constructed two bridges from Orient Point going to New London, CT and Naptree Point, RI. Neither bridge was built and the LIE still terminates in Riverhead. In the mid-1960s, uber-road builder, Robert Moses, proposed constructing a 6.1 mile bridge from Oyster Bay to Port Chester, with a price tag of about $100 million. Although initially supported by Governor Rockefeller, the proposal ran into difficulties with then-new environmental impact study requirements. In 1968, a proposal to build two bridges, one between Oyster Bay and Rye and the other between Port Jefferson and Bridgeport, was considered. While the bridges were believed to be economically feasible, and would reduce the enormous increase in east-west traffic, this proposal also did not move forward.

The 1972 Long Island Sound Crossing project, which included realignments of the Long Island Expressway in Syosset and Route 95 in Rye, ran into local opposition and Governor Rockefeller stepped in and killed the project. In 1979, another proposal considered five different locations for a cross-sound bridge. The expected cost was $1.4 billion. The proposal ran out of gas when one study determined that a ferry would be better than a bridge to cross the Sound.

In 2008, the Polimeni/Long Island Cross Sound Link Tunnel proposal called for the construction of a 16-mile, three-tube, six-lane tunnel. Estimated to cost about $10-$13 billion, it ultimately failed due to waning state support and the economic recession.

The Latest Proposal

This leads us to the most recent proposal. While the 2017 LI Sound Report  looked at several options, it ended up recommending that five possible alignments should be further evaluated. These include two options for a western alignment, from Oyster Bay to Rye/Port Chester, for a bridge only or bridge/tunnel combination, and three options for a central alignment, from Kings Park to Bridgeport or Devon, for bridge only and two different bridge and tunnel connections. The 2017 LI Sound Report also looked at a third alignment, called the eastern alignment, from Wading River to New Haven or Branford, but was rejected as not meeting the project’s goals. These goals include decreasing travel time, decreasing congestion, improving air quality, expanding labor markets, improving evacuation off of Long Island and improving freight movement.

The 2017 LI Sound Report looked at engineering considerations of what would be one of the largest projects of its type in the world. Essentially – can this project be built? The study also evaluated environmental considerations, including impacts to wetland, waterbodies, groundwater, ecology, natural resources, critical environmental areas, farmland, air quality climate change, noise, asbestos and hazardous wastes. The study also looked at capital and financial considerations, including the estimated cost to build the project ($55 billion), the demand for the crossing and possible tolls that would be charged for its use.

The release of the 2017 LI Sound Report in December 2017 was followed up in January 2018 by a Request for Expressions of Interest issued by the NYSDOT (RFEI). The RFEI requested input for all aspects of the proposal, with the ultimate goal of issuing a Request for Proposal to build the project in the future. It is reported that six major developers responded to the RFEI.

The Reaction To The Proposal

Business groups such as the Long Island Association and the Long Island Builders Institute noted that the project deserved serious consideration and could help alleviate Long Island’s massive traffic issues. Not unexpectedly, local politicians and residents from Bayville, Syosset, Ashaorken, Brookville, Lattingtown, Sea Cliff, Lloyd Harbor, Oyster Bay, Upper Brookville and other local communities voiced strenuous objections to this project. Among other issues, the residents and politicians claim that the tunnel’s ventilation/exhaust and emergency access systems would adversely impact air quality, would increase traffic congestion in their neighborhoods, would contaminate the groundwater and cause other environmental catastrophes. Community meetings are being held across Long Island by the opponents of the project. The next one is scheduled for June 14th in Syosset.

Next Steps

While the project will undergo multiple years of further study before being built, and is proposed by a Governor who has been instrumental in replacing aging infrastructure with new state-of-the-art structures that others said would never be built (e.g., the Tappen Zee Bridge), it will be interesting to see if the Long Island Sound Crossing Project gets built or becomes another proposal that is DOA on the drawing board.

Recently Farrell Fritz, P.C. represented a family held limited liability company in connection with an application to a East End zoning board of appeals to maintain an eight (8) foot fence and six (6) foot driveway gates around its property in Sagaponack.   See, 79 Parsonage LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Incorporated Village of Sagaponack.  Both the fence and a portion of the applicant’s gates violated the Village of Sagaponack’s six (6) foot height limitation.

On behalf of the applicant, Farrell Fritz argued that a fence was necessary to exclude a family of deer that had taken up residence on the property.  Exclusion of the deer was necessary as one member of the household had suffered through two bouts of Lyme’s Disease. In addition, the fence was constructed among mature vegetation and was not visible from the street.

Despite those and additional arguments offered at the hearing, the Sagaponack Zoning Board denied the application.

On behalf of the property owner, Farrell Fritz commenced an Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, appealing the Zoning Board’s Decision.

On December 15, 2017, Justice Gerard W. Asher, J.S.C. overturned the Zoning Board’s denial and directed the Board to issue the requested variances finding that the applicant overcame the presumption afforded to Zoning Boards in deciding zoning cases. Through the Article 78, Farrell Fritz demonstrated that no evidence existed to support the Zoning Board’s decision; and its findings were conclusory, and therefore irrational and arbitrary and capricious. Judge Asher agreed with the application that the fence was hidden, and a grant would benefit the applicant because one of the two members already suffered from Lyme’s Disease. After making the findings, Judge Asher vacated and annulled the ZBA determination.

What Judge Asher makes clear in his Decision, and should be considered by all practitioners, is that zoning boards must balance all of the relevant considerations in a rational way.

In April of 2016 we published the blog entitled “Mining in the Hamptons: Appellate Division Affirms Town of Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals Limitations on Pre-existing Nonconforming Uses Associated with Hamptons Mining Operation.” Despite the Appellate Division’s decision regarding certain pre-existing nonconforming uses occurring on the site, Sand Land Corporation’s (“Sandland”) pre-existing mining use of the property was never at issue, until now.

In January 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) issued a determination entitled “Ruling of the Chief Administrative Law Judge on Threshold Procedural Issue, January 26, 2018” essentially halting the DEC’s review of Sandland’s mining permit application until further information was submitted by the Town of Southampton. Sandland, was authorized pursuant to a Mined Land Reclamation Law (MLRL) permit issued by the DEC to mine sand and gravel from 31.5 acres of the 50 acre site to a depth of 160 feet above mean sea level, which is 60 feet below the surface elevation at 220 feet. In January of 2014, Sandland submitted an application to the DEC to expand its current permit to mine 4.9 additional acres and excavate the floor of the mine to 120 feet above mean sea level- lowering the mine floor by 40 feet. The DEC notified the applicant that a permit modification to expand the mine “beyond its previously approved life of mine boundaries” was considered a “new application”, classified as a “major project” and required a statement that mining was not prohibited at the site.

NYS Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL”) §23-2703, Declaration of Public Policy, Subsection 3 states, “No agency of this state shall consider an application for a permit to mine as complete or process such application for a permit to mine pursuant to this title, within counties with a population of one million or more which draws its primary source of drinking water for a majority of county residents from a designated sole source aquifer, if local zoning laws or ordinances prohibit mining uses within the area proposed to be mined.” Suffolk County satisfies this criteria having a population of one million or more and drawing its primary source of drinking water from a sole source aquifer. Opponents of Sandlands’ application argued that because mining is prohibited in the zoning district where the property is located, ECL §23-2703 (3) applies and the DEC is prohibited from processing the application.

ECL §23-2711(3) requires that the DEC notify the Town’s “Chief Administrative Officer” for properties not previously permitted pursuant to that title and seek input regarding whether mining is permitted on site.[1] The Town responded with a letter noting the Certificate of Occupancy authorizing mining on site but noted that if the DEC was characterizing this as a new mine, that new mines are prohibited in all zoning districts.[2] The Town further noted the location of the property in the Aquifer Protection Overlay District and requested that the reclamation of the property be expedited to allow the property to be used for conforming residential purposes. However, the Town did acknowledge that “certain nonconforming uses, if they are established to pre-exist zoning, are allowed to continue and even expand under certain circumstances pursuant to Town Code §330-167B”.

Additionally, the Town Code provides for the continuance of nonconforming uses pursuant to §330-115 which states, “Any lawful use occupying any building, structure, lot or land at the time of the effective date of this chapter or any amendment thereto which does not comply after the effective date of this chapter or any amendment thereto with the use regulations of the district in which it is situated may be continued in the building or structure or upon the lot or land so occupied, except as provided in § 330-119.”[3]

The DEC held a hearing where the applicant argued that the application only sought renewal of an existing permit for a lawful preexisting nonconforming use. Ultimately, however the DEC Administrative Law Judge held that ECL § 23-2703(3) prohibits the DEC from processing mining permits for mines located in towns such as the Town of Southampton, Suffolk County, where the county, with a population of over one million people, draws its primary drinking water for a majority of its residents from a designated sole source aquifer, and the town has a local law prohibiting mining in the town. Additionally, the Administrative Law Judge found that Sandland had not established that the proposed mine expansion was authorized under the Town’s local zoning laws. The reviewing Judge adjourned the matter pending submission of proof adequate to establish that applicant’s proposed mine expansion is authorized under the Town’s local law.

As determined by the New York State Court of Appeals, a prior nonconforming use for mining is unique in that it is not limited solely to the land that was actually excavated before the enactment of a restrictive zoning law (in this case, March 27, 1983) but extends well beyond.[4] The well-known Court of Appeals case, Syracuse Aggregate, established that pre-existing mining rights extend to the boundaries of the property regardless of whether that specific area was mined prior to the change in the zoning law. In examining the nature of mining as a nonconforming use the Court stated:

“By its very nature, quarrying involves a unique use of land. As opposed to other nonconforming uses in which the land is merely incidental to the activities conducted upon it, quarrying contemplates the excavation and sale of the corpus of the land itself as a resource. Depending on customer needs, the land will be gradually excavated in order to supply the various grades of sand and gravel demanded. Thus as a matter of practicality as well as economic necessity, a quarry operator will not excavate his entire parcel of land at once, but will leave areas in reserve, virtually untouched until they are actually needed.” [5]

In furtherance of this premise, the Court of Appeals in Buffalo Crushed Stone extended that holding to properties purchased in contemplation of mining that are separate and apart from the original mined parcel.[6] The Court stated,

“Consequently, a prior nonconforming use for quarrying cannot be limited solely to the land that was actually excavated before the zoning law, because-in this unique type of industry- landowners commonly leave portions of their land as mineral reserves to be excavated at a future time.[7]   Mine owners commonly leave portions of their land as mineral reserves to be excavated at a future time.”[8]

The question remains, then, how this administrative court essentially halted the continuation of this “unique” mining operation that pre-exists zoning via the DEC permitting process without applying or even considering this well-established line of Court of Appeals cases.  Indeed, the reviewing Administrative Law Judge did cite the Syracuse Aggregate case but only for the following premise: “A town’s authority includes not only the power to prohibit the development of new mines ( see id. at 684), but to impose reasonable restrictions limiting the expansion of and eventually extinguishing prior nonconforming mining uses within the town (See Matter of Sand Land Corp. , 137 AD3d at 1291-1292; Matter of Syracuse Aggregate Corp. v Weise , 51 NY2d 278, 287 [1980] Matter of 550 Halstead Corp. v Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Town/Vil. of Harrison , 1 NY3d 561, 562 [2003] [Because nonconforming uses are viewed as detrimental to zoning schemes, public policy favors their reasonable restriction and eventual elimination.]).”

However, the Judge failed to take notice of the Court of Appeals holding in Gernatt Asphalt Products, Inc. v. Town of Sardinia, 87 N.Y.2d 668, 642 N.Y.S.2d 164, 664 N.E.2d 1226 (1996), upholding a zoning law banning mining except for preexisting operations. “Towns may not directly regulate mining, but they retain the power to zone — even to zone out mining totally, as long as non-conforming uses are protected, as the Constitution mandates, to prevent a de facto taking.” See McKinney’s Practice Commentaries to NYS Environmental Conservation Law 23-2703 , Philip Weinberg (emphasis added).

Procedurally, Sandland’s mine permit expires in November of 2018. The matter was appealed administratively in a motion to reargue, a second hearing took place and we look forward to the Administrative Law Judge’s ruling.

 

[1] ECL §23-2711(3) further states,(a) The chief administrative officer may make a determination, and notify the department and applicant, in regard to: (i) appropriate setbacks from property boundaries or public thoroughfare rights-of-way, (ii) manmade or natural barriers designed to restrict access if needed, and, if affirmative, the type, length, height and location thereof, (iii) the control of dust, (iv) hours of operation, and (v) whether mining is prohibited at that location. Any determination made by a local government hereunder shall be accompanied by supporting documentation justifying the particular determinations on an individual basis.

[2] Mining effectively became prohibited in the Town of Southampton on March 27, 1981. See Huntington Ready Mix-Concrete Inc. v. Town of Southampton et al., 104 A.D.2d 499 (1984).

[3] Town Code § 330-119, Compulsory termination of nonconforming uses, bars, taverns and nightclubs, addresses the amortization of pre-existing nonconforming nightclubs.

[4] Syracuse Aggregate Corp. v. Weise, 51 N.Y.2d 278, 434 N.Y.S.2d 150 (1980); Buffalo Crushed Stone, Inc. v. Town of Cheektowaga, 13 N.Y.3d 88, 885 N.Y.S.2d 913 (2009)(stating “quarrying contemplates a gradual unearthing of the minerals in the land, as so excavation of portions of the land may be sufficient to manifest an intention to conduct quarrying on the property as a whole.”)

[5] Id. at 285, 434 N.Y.S.2d 150 (citations omitted).

[6] Buffalo Crushed Stone, Inc., 13 N.Y.3d 88, 885 N.Y.S.2d 913 (2009)(confirming the mining company had the vested pre-existing right to mine a separate parcel, “subparcel 5” which was not mined by its predecessors and separated by a road from the larger mined area.)

[7] Id. at 401.

 

[8] Id. at 396 stating, (“we hold that the long and exclusive quarrying operation of BCS and its predecessors and their preparations to use areas left as aggregate mineral reserves, consistent with the nature of quarrying, established a right of prior nonconforming usage on the disputed subparcels”).

Last month, the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued four decisions[1] in a series of hybrid proceedings challenging local laws in the Town of Riverhead (“Riverhead”). Plaintiff/Petitioner Calverton Manor, LLC (“Calverton Manor”), in connection with a site plan application, sought to annul several resolutions adopted by Defendant/Respondent Riverhead Town Board (“Town Board”). These resolutions: (1) established a new comprehensive plan; (2) implemented a new agricultural protection zoning district (“Agricultural District”); (3) implemented a new rural corridor district (“Rural District”); and (4) enacted a new transfer of development rights law (“TDR Law”). Each of the challenges was based upon the Town Board’s failure to comply with N.Y. General Municipal Law Section 239-m (“Section 239-m”), among other things. In addition, Calverton Manor argued that the “special facts exception” required Riverhead to apply the preceding zoning district laws to its application, rather than the new Agricultural District and Rural District laws.

In these cases, the Court held that some circumstances allow revisions to be made to proposed laws or actions referred to the county planning agency pursuant to Section 239-m even after the referral is made. As the Court analyzed Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenges to the various Town Board resolutions, its holdings illustrate the distinction between valid post-referral modifications and invalid modifications which violate Section 239-m and render the entire act void. Additionally, the Court analyzed the special facts exception in light of Riverhead’s treatment of Calverton Manor’s application.

Calverton Manor’s Site Plan Application versus a New Comprehensive Plan

Calverton Manor owns an undeveloped parcel of land (“Property”) in Riverhead and submitted a site plan application in 2001 to construct numerous commercial and residential buildings thereon (“Application”). For approximately two years, Calverton Manor worked with Riverhead on its Application to satisfy the applicable zoning laws in effect at the time. Riverhead, however, had been developing a new comprehensive plan since 1997. The new comprehensive plan sought to protect open space and farmland, while concentrating development into certain specified areas. Riverhead’s new comprehensive plan also proposed eliminating certain permitted uses on the Property that were crucial to the Application.

Calverton Manor submitted the last revised Application in September 2003. The Town Board adopted the new comprehensive plan on November 3, 2003. The new comprehensive plan derailed the Application and development of the Property. Calverton Manor brought its challenges in Suffolk County Supreme Court. Calverton Manor was largely unsuccessful and appealed; the Town Board cross-appealed concerning the special facts exemption.

Amendments Subsequent to a Section 239-m Referral: Embraced in the Original

With respect to Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the Town Board’s resolutions enacting the comprehensive plan, the Agricultural District and the Rural District, the trial court denied the petition, dismissed the proceeding and declared theses local laws legal and valid.[2] Section 239-m, in many instances, requires a municipality to submit to the county planning agency a “full statement” of the proposed action. In pertinent part, the trial court found that the Town Board made the appropriate Section 239-m referrals. Calverton Manor appealed and the Second Department affirmed. The Court held that despite changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District after the Town Board referred these local laws to the Suffolk County Planning Commission (“Commission”), the revisions were “embraced within the original referral” such that the Town Board did not fail to refer a full statement of its proposed action.

Calverton Manor also presented a Section 239-m challenge to Riverhead’s new TDR Law. Transfer development rights allow landowners whose development rights have been adversely affected or limited in one place to transfer these rights to another place and build in excess of certain limitations in that other, buildable place. The parcel from which rights are transferred is the “sending parcel” and the parcel to which rights are transferred is the “receiving parcel.” Riverhead’s new TDR Law designated the Property as a “sending parcel” so that development rights could only be transferred away from it, as opposed to towards it.

With respect to this challenge, the trial court also denied Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the TDR Law based upon the same rationale. The Second Department, however, reversed the trial court, granted the motion for summary judgment and declared the TDR Law void for failure to comply with Section 239-m. The Town Board’s submission of the TDR Law to the Commission was effectively rejected because it was missing the complete text of the law. The Commission, upon receipt of the proposed law, advised the Town Board by letter that it would not review the TDR Law until it received a complete revised text of the amendment. And, nothing in the record contradicted the Commission’s position that it did not receive a complete text of the law. Therefore, the Court found that the Town Board failed to refer a “full statement” of the proposed TDR Law to the Commission prior to enacting the same in violation of Section 239-m.

The Town Board sought the same “embraced within the original” protection the Court applied to the other local laws. Specifically, the Town Board argued its referral of prior drafts of the TDR Law sufficed Section 239-m and obviated the need for the subsequent referral. The appeals court disagreed. A new referral is not required only if “the particulars of the [changes] were embraced within the original referral.” Unlike the changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District, subsequent to their referrals, the amendments to the TDR Law were not embraced within the referred version.

The TDR Law ultimately passed by the Town Board, among other things, mapped the sending and receiving districts and specified the degree to which density limitations could be exceeded. The prior versions of the TDR Law reserved these details for future consideration. Highlighting the significance of the changes made to the TDR Law post-referral, the Town Board’s own resolution declared that the final TDR Law contained “significant modifications” from the prior versions. In addition, the Town Board even prepared a supplemental generic environmental impact statement over the course of several months to evaluate the changes in the final TDR Law. Accordingly, the Court held that the Town Board failed to comply with Section 239-m, the adoption of the resolution enacting the TDR Law was of no effect and the TDR Law is void and unenforceable.

Special Facts Exception Permits “Grandfathering” Site Plan Applications

In addition to its Section 239-m, Calverton Manor argued “special facts” required that the zoning district laws preceding the Agricultural District and Rural District apply to its Application. Ordinarily, courts apply the current zoning laws in effect when they render decisions. Under the special facts exception, however, courts may apply the law in effect at the time the application was made. This exception applies where the landowner “establishes entitlement as a matter of right to the underlying land use application [and] extensive delay indicative of bad faith….unjustifiable actions by municipal officials…or abuse of administrative procedures.”

The Town Board sought to dismiss this claim, but the trial court held triable issues of fact existed sufficient to permit the claim to proceed. The Town Board cross-appealed and the Second Department denied its appeal.[3] The Court found that triable issues of fact exist as to whether special facts warranted the application of the prior zoning laws to Calverton Manor’s Application.

The record contained inconsistencies as to whether Calverton Manor’s last revised Application was “complete” in September 2003. On the one hand, evidence in the record showed that Calverton Manor needed to make further revisions before the Application could be deemed completed under Riverhead’s rules. In this scenario, Calverton Manor is not entitled to the exception. On the other hand, evidence also showed that the Town Board determined the Application was “completed” upon submission in September 2003. This latter circumstance indicates the Town Board may have delayed processing the Application in bad faith until the new laws went into effect. Because triable issues of fact exist, summary judgment on this claim was inappropriate.

—ENDNOTES—

[1] Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 829 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 833 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 838 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 842 (2d Dept 2018).

[2] Although these are hybrid proceedings, for the purposes of simplicity, the petition/complaint will be referred to as the petition and the proceeding/action will be referred to as the proceeding.

[3] The Town Board cross-appealed “from so much of the order as did not search the record and award them summary judgment and, in effect, make a declaration in their favor” on Calverton Manor’s special facts exception claim. The Second Department “dismissed” the cross appeal based upon the premise that the Town Board was not entitled to make such an appeal because it was technically not aggrieved. The Court noted that a party is not aggrieved by an order which does not grant relief that the party did not request. Here, apparently, the Town Board did not ask the trial court to award summary judgment on the special exceptions claim. Therefore, it cannot be aggrieved by this aspect of the order and is not entitled to appeal it. Despite having “dismissed” the cross-appeal, the Second Department heard, analyzed and denied the Town Board’s arguments seeking summary judgment on the special facts exception.

It is not uncommon for municipal planning departments to require applicants who are seeking land use approvals involving multiple contiguous parcels to consolidate or merge the properties to form one single larger parcel. Consolidation or merger typically results in a new tax map number, a new single tax bill for the consolidated or merged lots, assurances to the municipality that the otherwise single unconsolidated or non-merged lots will not be individually sold off post land use approvals and that the proposed project which is subject to the land use approvals will be assessed for real property tax purposes as one single improved unit (versus partially improved and partially vacant land).

Consolidation or merger of single parcels into one larger parcel provides for certainty when it comes to ownership of the lands subject to the approvals and provides the municipal assessing unit with certainty as to the use of the lands while imposing a single tax class and assessed value to the overall project.  Consolidation or merger is most often required prior to issuance of a building permit or Certificate of Occupancy.  Consolidation can be set forth as a covenant or condition in a written and signed Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions, which is recorded against the property in the applicable County Clerk’s or County Registers Office.  Similar to any other covenant or restriction, failure to comply with the covenant or restriction to consolidate can result in revocation of the relevant land use approvals.

In a recent Second Department case involving a real property tax assessment dispute, failure by the property owner to consolidate or merge six individual parcels that form the boundaries of a shopping center gave rise to unequal tax assessments among the six parcels, resulting in the exact problem that municipalities try to avoid by requiring consolidation or merger.

In re Blauvelt Mini-Mall, Inc v. Town of Orangetown, as a condition of site plan approval granted in 1992, the Town required that six individually owned parcels be merged into one single parcel forming the boundaries of a proposed shopping center.  Despite the condition, no formal steps were ever taken to effectuate the merger.   The facts of the case do not indicate whether the merger requirement was reduced to a recorded Declaration of Covenants and Restriction with revocation language.

Over the years, although a formal merger was never accomplished, the Town assessed the shopping center as one real property taxable unit by undervaluing five of the parcels while overvaluing the sixth parcel.  This valuation strategy lead to the unequal tax assessments that consolidation or merger seeks to avoid.   What is interesting about this case from a land use perspective is the fact that despite the 1992 Town directive to consolidate or merge the lots, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court holding that directed the merger by stating that  “[n]one of the parties sought merger of the parcels or similar relief, merger of all the parcels at issue into one tax lot is not supported by the record, and merger of all the parcels could be potentially prejudicial to the petitioner.”

Hence, despite all outward appearances by the property owner to use the unconsolidated parcels as one consolidated improved shopping center parcel, failure to take the necessary steps to consolidate, such as transferring all six parcels into one deed, providing one overall property description or metes and bounds instead of six individual metes and bounds, and modifying the official tax maps to reflect one single parcel, the petitioner in this case could potentially benefit from the unequal tax assessments to the detriment of the municipality.  Likewise, even though the Town conditioned site plan approval on consolidation or merger of the lots, failure by the municipality to insure that consolidation actually occurred seems to have resulted in a waiver or estoppel against the municipality, which is not typically applicable to municipalities.

Author note: Although the facts of this case do not indicate the basis for under valuation of five parcels and over valuation of the sixth parcel, it would likely be reasonable that the five undervalued parcels are perhaps being assessed as vacant land containing only parking areas, or open space, while the sixth parcel houses the actual shopping center structure.  If this is the case, petitioner could easily argue that parcels one to five should receive a lower vacant land assessment, while only parcel six should receive a full commercial improved real property assessment.  Allowing this fact pattern to exist provides for uncertainty in tax assessments.

Local governments in New York may regulate land use within their borders directly through their zoning codes and indirectly by adopting a variety of other statutes and regulations. There are, however, limits to their power. Municipalities, of course, must not discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of the U.S. or New York State Constitutions or other applicable federal or state laws.

That message was delivered loud and clear in a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in a long-running court battle over a proposed rabbinical college in the Village of Pomona, in Rockland County.  In Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 07-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2017), the Court, following a 10-day bench trial, ruled that the Village could not use zoning and other laws it adopted to thwart the construction of the rabbinical college and associated dormitory housing proposed in the community.  In an earlier proceeding to consider the parties’ motions for summary judgment and a punitive motion for sanctions against the Village for the spoliation of evidence, the Court granted portions of each party’s motion, including the sanctions motion that resulted in an award of attorneys’ fees and costs relating to the spoliation dispute.  See Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 7-2007-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. 2015).  For a more detailed discussion of the pre-trial motions, see Charlotte Biblow’s two-part blog post, How To Spend Over $1.5 Million (And Counting) of Taxpayer Funds Defending A Land Use Claim and Facebook Posts And Text Messages Result In Monetary And Other Sanctions Being Imposed Against A Municipality.

The case involved approximately 100 acres of land in Pomona purchased in 2004 by the Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. Tartikov sought to build a “kollel” or rabbinical college on the property that would include housing for its students – all affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish community, including various sects of the Hasidic community – and the students’ families. According to Tartikov, the on-campus housing would permit students to study from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and also to meet their religious obligations to their families.

Tartikov and future students and faculty (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) commenced an action in 2007 to challenge portions of three laws that Pomona adopted: an “Accreditation Law,” which defined educational institutions and dormitories; a “Dormitory Law,” which limited the size of dormitories; and a “Wetlands Law,” which established wetlands protections in the Village (collectively, the “Challenged Laws”).  The Plaintiffs argued that the Challenged Laws effectively prevented the construction of Tartikov’s rabbinical college in the Village and were discriminatory and substantially burdened their religious exercise.  The Village claimed that the Challenged Laws had been passed for legitimate reasons and were intended to prevent the construction of a large number of housing units for students and their families that the Village contended would overburden its infrastructure and detract from its rural character.

The Court ruled that the Village passed the Challenged Laws “with a discriminatory purpose.”  Specifically, the Court opined that the Village enacted the Challenged Laws to prevent the spread of the Orthodox/Hasidic community within the Village, and, in certain respects, to specifically target Tartikov and the property it owned. The Court said that it based this conclusion “on the context in which the laws were adopted” and “the unsatisfactory and incredible reasons presented for their adoption.”  The Court noted that a number of Village officials had made statements indicative of their prejudice towards Tartikov and Orthodox/Hasidic Jews. The Court also pointed out that members of the community expressed animus towards Orthodox/Hasidic Jews and that the Village’s Board of Trustees “acted on that animus.”

While the Court invalidated the Challenged Laws as a violation of the Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion and equal protection of the laws, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.  3601 et seq., as well as their right to freedom of worship under the New York Constitution, local government officials and their counsel should be guided by the Court’s critical focus on the discriminatory motives behind the Village’s adoption of these laws. The evidence cited by the Court for its conclusions and its application of that evidence to constitutional and statutory standards highlights the official and non-official actions that government officials should avoid when faced with similar circumstances.

In Fichera, et al. v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., et al., decided last month, Petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to void actions taken and determinations made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Sterling (“Sterling ZBA”) and to enjoin the advancement of a mine project (“Mine Project”). Below, the Supreme Court, County of Cayuga, denied the petition and granted various motions to dismiss. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that (1) the petition was timely and (2) the Supreme Court erred by dismissing the cause of action based upon a violation of  New York General Municipal Law section 239-m (“Section 239-m”) and by not granting the petition thereupon. The appeals court remitted the matter back to the Sterling ZBA.

As pertinent to the appeal, the Article 78 petition claimed that the Sterling ZBA violated Section 239-m when it granted the Mine Project owners’ original application for an area variance without referring the matter to the appropriate county planning agency or regional planning council. Therefore, petitioners argued, the Sterling ZBA’s action in granting the area variance application was deemed null and void. Petitioners further argued that the Sterling ZBA’s sua sponte decision to grant the Mine Project owners an amended area variance based upon its previous determination on the original application was also null and void.

In opposition to the petition, respondents argued that the challenge to the determination granting the initial area variance was time-barred because petitioners failed to commence their challenge within 30 days of the original determination, as required by New York Town Law section 267-c(1). In addition, respondents contended that the determination granting the subsequent amended area variance was made by the Sterling ZBA after it made the appropriate referrals required by Section 239-m.

The appeals court agreed with the petitioners and emphasized the jurisdictional importance of complying with Section 239-m in declaring the Sterling ZBA’s approvals null and void. In many instances, Section 239-m requires a municipal agency to refer an application to a county or regional planning board for its recommendation prior to the agency taking final action on an application for land use approval. The Sterling ZBA did not refer the initial application for an area variance to the Cayuga County Planning Board before taking final action with respect to that application. Failure to comply with Section 239-m is not a mere procedural irregularity; rather, it is a jurisdictional defect involving the validity of a legislative act. Accordingly, the Sterling ZBA’s failure to refer the initial application to the county planning board renders the approval null and void.

Moreover, the appeals court held that the Sterling ZBA’s determination in granting the subsequent amended area variance was also null and void. “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the [Sterling] ZBA’s approval of the amended area variance is likewise null and void.”

Notably, if the county or regional planning board recommends modifications or disapproves an application, then the referring body cannot act otherwise – except by a vote of majority plus one of all members. Here, the Sterling ZBA unanimously approved the grant of the amended area variance and the respondents argued that the unanimous approval of the amended area variance was sufficient to override any recommendation by Cayuga County Planning Board to disapprove or modify (had the Sterling ZBA referred in the first place). “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the [Sterling] ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

Lastly, the appeals court found that the Article 78 petition was timely, despite having been brought well-after the Sterling ZBA’s determination respecting the initial area variance application. The filing of a jurisdictionally defective document does not commence the statute of limitations. Therefore, the statute of limitations never ran and the petition was timely.

The Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment in conformance with its opinion (discussed above) and remitted the matter to the Sterling ZBA for a new determination on the area variance application.

Standing is a threshold issue in challenges to administrative decisions.  Prior blog posts have dealt with standing in cases involving challenges to local land use and zoning decisions.  If standing is not established, the party seeking to overturn the administrative decision will see its proceeding dismissed without any consideration of the merits.  Whether a party has standing is quite fact-sensitive but there are certain overarching principals that should be remembered.  Most notably, a petitioner must show in its pleadings that it suffered a harm that is different from the harm suffered by the general public, that the harm is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the applicable statute, and that the alleged harm is not speculative.

Late last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued two companion decisions that caught our “standing” attention. While the cases involve a challenge to a loophole in the Election Law for limited liability companies, referred to as the LLC Loophole, the matters were resolved on the basis of the lack standing of the petitioners.  In these cases, petitioners raised interesting arguments that they thought would support their standing to challenge an administrative decision, but the Court found them unpersuasive.  The Court’s evaluation of the standing claims may be helpful to those seeking to establish or to defeat standing in the land use and zoning matters.

The Facts     

According to the decisions,  Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524905) and Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524950), petitioners were the Brennan Center For Justice at NYU Law School (the “Brennan Center”), a self-described “not-for-profit, non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on issues of democracy and justice” and six individual petitioners who were current or former legislators or candidates for legislative office. Respondent, the New York State Board of Elections, (“Board of Elections”), was described in the decisions as “a bi-partisan agency governed by four appointed commissioners and vested with the statutory authority to issue instructions, rules and regulations pertaining to campaign financing practices, among other things.”

New York State’s Election Law contains provisions that limit campaign contributions for various types of donors.  When limited liability companies were authorized in New York in 1994, the Legislature did not amend the Election Law to address campaign limits for this type of entity. In 1996, the Board of Elections issued an opinion that treated limited liability companies as individuals for purposes of campaign contribution limits. This allowed limited liability companies to donate larger amounts to campaigns than corporations or partnerships could donate. While there were efforts legislatively to close the LLC Loophole, none were successful.

In April 2015, one of the commissioners of the Board of Elections sought to close the LLC Loophole by making a motion to direct the board’s counsel to rescind the 1996 opinion and provide guidance on limits that should apply to contributions by limited liability companies. The motion failed, whereupon the Petitioners sought review in a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action (“Hybrid Proceeding”). The Supreme Court dismissed the Hybrid Proceeding, which the Appellate Division affirmed in one of the companion decisions.

In April 2016, one of the commissioners made a new motion seeking approval of a draft opinion that would rescind the 1996 opinion and replace it with an opinion that treated limited liability companies in the same manner as partnerships and corporations with respect to campaign contribution limits. This motion also failed. Petitioners commenced another Hybrid Proceeding seeking to invalidate what the Board of Elections did in April 2016 and to replace the 1996 opinion with the 2016 draft opinion. The Supreme Court dismissed the second action, and the Appellate Division affirmed in the second companion decision.

The Appellate Division Decisions

In both cases, the Appellate Division found that the individual petitioners lacked standing. The appellate court found that their claims of harm – that the LLC Loophole “hampers their electoral campaigns by placing them at a competitive disadvantage against opponents who receive large contributions,” “damages their ability to represent their constituents,” harms the voters by “limiting their choices among candidates and hiding the identity of donors,” and “would cause them to suffer disadvantages in future elections” did not confer standing. The court found all these claims to be neither different nor distinct from those of the public at large and were also conjectural.

Similarly, the appellate court found that the Brennan Center lacked standing. The Brennan Center claimed the LLC Loophole “harms its staff contributors and volunteers by limiting their candidate choices and unduly influencing their political representatives.” The appellate court found that this alleged harm was no different than the harm suffered by the general public and did not support standing. The appellate court also rejected the Brennan Center’s claim that it was injured by having to advocate for the closure of the LLC Loophole, which required it to expend resources. The majority also noted that petitioners could not establish standing by claiming that the LLC Loophole caused disparities in campaign contributions, wryly noting that the “[o]ur political system does not mandate equal funding for all candidates.”

The Appellate Division also found that the courts were not the appropriate place to fix the LLC Loophole. Rather, it “resolved around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches.”

Moral Of The Story

As to the applicability of these decisions to Land Use and Zoning – the bottom line is never forget “standing.”  It is a fundamental element that must be established by petitioners and a fundamental defense that should be considered and raised, if applicable, by respondents, in challenges to governmental actions. As noted in the decisions and in the introductory paragraphs, above, petitioners must show “that they have suffered an injury-in-fact and that the injury is within the zone of interest protected by the statute at issue.” Otherwise they will be found to lack standing and will be unable to challenge a determination on the merits.

In 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) proposed sweeping changes to its State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) regulations. These proposed changes were not adopted. Rather, five years later, in February 2017, the NYSDEC issued proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations and a draft generic environmental impact statement, (GEIS), in which it set forth its rationale and objectives for the proposed amendments. We wrote about this development in an April 3, 2017 blog post.

The NYSDEC did not enact the 2017 proposed regulations. Instead, more than one year later, on April 4, 2018, the NYSDEC released revised proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations and a revised draft GEIS, in which it addressed approximately 250 comments it received in 2017. At the same time, the NYSDEC released proposed revisions to Part 1 of the Short Environmental Assessment (EAS) Form and to Parts 1 and 2 of the Full EAS Form. The 2018 revised proposed amendments made refinements to the existing regulations, in particular to Type II actions. A Type II action does not require SEQRA review. The NYSDEC is accepting comments through May 4, 2018 on these revised proposed amendments.

Here’s a brief summary of the 2018 revised proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations.

The existing SEQRA regulations note that each agency can adopt its own list of Type II actions and is not bound by a list of Type II actions adopted by another agency. [6 NYCRR § 617.5(b)] The revised proposed amendment to that provision will add a clarifying sentence that explains that an action that is “identified as a Type II action in an agency’s procedures” does not require it to “be treated as a Type II action by any other involved agency not identifying it as a Type II action in its procedures.”

Other proposed changes will indicate that the following are not subject to SEQRA review.

  • “retrofit of an existing structure and its appurtenant areas to incorporate green infrastructure”
  • “installation of telecommunication cables in existing highway or utility rights of way utilizing trenchless burial or aerial placement on existing poles”
  • “installation of solar arrays where such installation involves 25 acres or less of physical alterations” on closed sanitary landfills, certain brownfield sites that have received certificates of completion (COCs), or certain inactive hazardous waste sites that have received full liability releases or COCs

Another change will indicate that the installation of solar arrays on an existing structure is not subject to SEQRA review if the structure is not listed on the Register of Historic Places, is not located in a listed historical district, or has not been determined by the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to be eligible for such listings.

Another proposed change will indicate that the reuse of a residential or commercial structure, or of a mixed use residential/commercial structure, where the use is a permitted use or is permitted by special use permit and does not meet or exceed criteria contained in 6 NYCRR § 617.4, is not subject to SEQRA review. In addition, a recommendation of a county or regional planning board pursuant to General Municipal Law §§ 239-m or 239-n, an agency’s acquisition of or dedication of 25 acres or less as parkland, or the sale of real property by public auction, is not subject to SEQRA review. And, the construction and operation of an anaerobic digester, under certain conditions, will also be added to actions that are not subject to SEQRA review.

The revised proposed amendments also contain some refinements to the DEIS process. Of particular interest to Long Islanders is a proposed insert to 6 NYCRR § 617.9. The insert will apply to proposed actions that are in or involve resources of Nassau or Suffolk Counties. Such DEIS will have to include “measures to avoid or reduce an action’s environmental impacts and vulnerability from the effects of climate change such as sea level rise and flooding.”

One other proposed insert, to 6 NYCRR § 617.12, will be of concern to municipal agencies. That insert requires the lead agency to publish or cause to be published on a publicly available and free website the draft and final scopes and the draft and final environmental impact statements. These documents must remain on the website for at least one year after the later of (1) all permits having been issued, or (2) the action being funded or undertaken.

Stay tuned to see when, or if, the NYSDEC finally enacts the proposed changes to the SEQRA regulations.